This NAFSA page tracks developments on the significant delays in processing of receipt notices for applications for benefits such as OPT filed at USCIS lockboxes.

Updates

February 26, 2021. As a result of advocacy by organizations like NAFSA, court litigation, and the many requests for assistance individual students and DSOs made to USCIS and the CIS Ombudsman, on February 26, 2021 USCIS emailed an announcement to stakeholders setting forth the steps it will take to remedy the ill effects of the recent delays in processing at USCIS lockboxes. According to the message, now posted as a news alert on the USCIS website, for eligible applicants USCIS will:

  • Retain the filing date of a rejected filing if an applicant refiles his or her rejected application
  • Allow the 14-month period during which the 12 months of standard post-completion OPT must be completed to start following the approval of the EAD, rather than the program end date
  • Although lockboxes will continue to reject OPT applications with a missing or deficient signature, if such an application is accepted by the lockbox and makes its way to a USCIS adjudicator, USCIS will issue an RFE for the proper signature instead of denying the application.

Full text of the February 26, 2021 USCIS News Alert

USCIS Extends Flexibilities to Certain Applicants Filing Form I-765 for OPT

Release Date: 02/26/2021

USCIS today announced flexibilities for certain foreign students affected by delayed receipt notices for Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. These flexibilities apply only to applications received on or after Oct. 1, 2020, through May 1, 2021, inclusive.

USCIS has experienced delays at certain lockboxes in issuing receipt notices for Form I-765 for optional practical training (OPT) for F-1 students. These delays are a result of COVID-19 restrictions, a dramatic increase in filings of certain benefit requests, postal service volume and delays, and other external factors. While we have made progress in addressing the problem, we are extending the following flexibilities to assist certain applicants for OPT impacted by the delays.

14-month OPT Period Flexibilities

F-1 students may participate in up to 12 months of post-completion OPT, which must be completed within 14 months from the end of their program. Due to the delays at the lockbox, some applicants may only be eligible for a shortened period of OPT within that 14-month period. To allow F-1 students to complete the full period of requested OPT (up to 12 months), USCIS will allow the 14-month period to commence from the date of approval of the Form I-765 for applications for post-completion OPT.

Beginning today, USCIS will approve applications for post-completion OPT with validity dates reflecting the same amount of time originally recommended by the designated school official (DSO) from their school on the Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.

F-1 students requesting post-completion OPT who receive an approval of Form I-765 for less than the full amount of OPT time requested (not to exceed 12 months) due to the requirement that the OPT be completed within 14 months of the program end date may request a correction of the EAD due to USCIS error. USCIS will issue a corrected EAD with a new end date, as requested, to cover the full amount of OPT time recommended in the original application.

Refiling Following Rejection

Applicants for OPT must file the Form I-765 during certain timeframes. However, we recognize that due to the lockbox delays, some applicants who timely filed Form I-765 for OPT and whose applications were later rejected are unable to timely refile within the required application timeframes.

USCIS will accept a refiled Form I-765 for OPT and STEM OPT as filed on the original filing date if:

  • The original, timely filed application was received on or after Oct. 1, 2020, through May 1, 2021, inclusive; and
  • USCIS subsequently rejected it.

Refiled applications must be received by May 31, 2021, for USCIS to treat the application as though filed on the original received date.

Applicants refiling a Form I-765 for OPT or STEM OPT do not need to obtain a new Form I-20 with an updated OPT recommendation from the DSO, as long as they originally submitted an application for post-completion OPT within 30 days of the DSO’s recommendation or an application for STEM OPT within 60 days of the DSO’s recommendation as required by the regulations.

Applicants refiling an application should include a copy of the rejection notice to facilitate review of the case.

Missing or Deficient Signatures

Applications with missing or deficient signatures are generally rejected at the lockbox. This policy remains unchanged. However, if the lockbox accepts a Form I-765 application for OPT or STEM OPT with a missing or deficient signature, USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence rather than deny the application, to give the applicant the opportunity to respond and provide the necessary signature or correct the deficiency. We encourage applicants filing Form I-765 to review the form instructions on our website to ensure their application is complete before filing it.


Background

February 24, 2021. NAFSA sends recommendations to USCIS.

On February 24, 2021, NAFSA sent the following recommendations to USCIS:

Because of long USCIS receipting and adjudication times, a student who finds that his or her application for OPT has been rejected or denied for "curable" reasons is often beyond regulatory deadlines and timeframes, resulting in either a complete unavailability of OPT or a reduction in the amount of OPT they might have been eligible for. USCIS should:

  1. Continue providing updates on processing times and backlog reduction, on the USCIS web site.
  2. Instruct lockboxes to accept and process applications instead of rejecting them, when there are filing fee, filing address, form version, or other procedural issues. Adjudicators should then issue an RFE asking the applicant to cure the procedural deficit, rather than denying the application.
  3. If a lockbox rejects an application because of a form, fee, filing address, or other procedural issue, USCIS should waive the conditions specified at 8 CFR 103.2(a) to:
    • Allow the applicant to retain the rejected application's lockbox receipt date as the filing date of an application resubmitted to cure those deficiencies.
    • USCIS should then consider the resubmitted application as properly filed with USCIS as of the original lockbox receipt date.
  4. Implement a process for managing duplicate I-765 filings without penalizing applicants. For example, when adjudicating an I-765 USCIS should search its records for a subsequent, duplicate application filed by the same individual and return the duplicate application and refund the filing fee.
  5. Where necessary, when accepting for filing and adjudicating an application for standard post-completion OPT, waive the following deadlines that would eliminate or reduce the availability of standard post-completion OPT
    • Waive the 90-60 day filing window specified at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(B)(2), to allow a student to apply earlier or later.
    • Waive the requirement specified at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(B)(2) to allow a student applying for standard OPT to file his or her Form I-765 with USCIS more than 30 days beyond the date the DSO enters the STEM OPT recommendation into SEVIS.
    • Waive the restriction specified at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(D), so that a student can have an OPT start date that is more than 60 days after the student's program end date.
    • Waive the requirement specified at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(A)(3), so that when needed, standard post-completion OPT can be completed more than 14 months beyond the student's program end date specified in SEVIS.
  6. Where necessary, when accepting for filing and adjudicating an application for a STEM OPT extension, waive the following deadlines that would eliminate or reduce the availability of STEM OPT:
    • Waive the requirement specified at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(C), so  that a student applying for STEM OPT can file his or her Form I-765 with USCIS more than 60 beyond the date the DSO enters the STEM OPT recommendation into SEVIS.
    • Waive the requirement implied at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(C), so that a STEM OPT application can be filed after the expiration of the student's standard post-completion OPT, when necessary.
    • Waive the 180-day limit on continued employment authorization specified at 8 CFR 274a.12(b)(6)(iv), to provide at least 90 more days of continued employment authorization (for a total of 270 days) while a timely-filed STEM OPT application is pending.
  7. Expedite the processing of replacement EADs or offer some kind of auto-extension that is not based on a receipt notice.
  8. Authorize employers to accept an OPT or STEM OPT approval notice as a List C document (proof of employment authorization) for I-9 purposes, in the absence of an EAD, as was done in limited fashion to address the COVID pandemic.
  9. Coordinate with SEVP
    • SEVP and USCIS should coordinate so that students and DSOs are not handed back and forth between the two. For some data fixes in the past, for example, DSOs have reported being told by SEVP that they need action or documentation from USCIS before performing a data fix, but USCIS is unable to produce the kind of documentation SEVP is asking for.
    • To preserve data integrity, ensure an adequate CLAIMS-SEVIS data exchanges to accurately reflect OPT requests and approvals modified or entered as a result of this initiative.

February 23, 2021. Article on lawsuit filed against USCIS and ICE on OPT receipting delays.

Read a February 19, 2021 article in The PIE News:

Lawsuit filed in Ohio seeks "timely" OPT processing in the US.

February 18, 2021. USCIS News Alert updates stakeholders.

A February 18, 2021 USCIS News Alert emailed to stakeholders registered with USCIS's Get Updates by Email option, gave F-1 student OPT applicants the following update on the Lockbox receipting delays. USCIS has not yet posted this News Alert to its news page.

USCIS Update Regarding Applicants
Filing Form I-765 for OPT

USCIS continues to experience delays at certain lockboxes in issuing receipt notices for Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, based on eligibility categories described in 8 C.F.R. 274a.12(c)(3), relating to optional practical training (OPT) for F-1 students. While we have made progress in addressing the delays, we would like to provide additional clarifications and reminders:

  • These delays will not affect the received date. All submissions are date stamped upon arrival at the Lockbox, so regardless of when the Lockbox processes your application, your received date will reflect the date it actually arrived at the Lockbox.
  • We will not reject applications solely because they were filed at the lockbox address in use prior to the change to the filing address instructions announced on Jan. 8, 2021. We encourage applicants filing Form I-765 to always check the form instructions on our website for the most up-to-date filing instructions.
  • If you have timely filed Form I-765 based on STEM OPT, and your post-completion OPT period expires while the application is pending, we will automatically extend the employment  authorization for 180 days. The Form I-20 endorsed by the designated school official recommending a STEM extension together with the expired Form I-766 employment authorization document (EAD) issued for post-completion OPT establishes identity and work authorization for purposes of documenting employment authorization.

[NAFSA note: On this third bullet, also see USCIS Handbook for Employers Form M-276, section 6.4.2 F-1 and M-1 Nonimmigrant Students, under the heading "F-1 STEM OPT Extension."]

What USCIS Is Doing

We are aware of the impact the delays have had on nonimmigrant students. The USCIS lockbox workforce continues to work extra hours and redistribute its workload, while maintaining COVID-19 protection measures, in order to minimize delays. Once we open and process your application, we print and mail the receipt notice. We are working to prevent receipting delays from resulting in a payment that is past its validity date. 

The USCIS Service Centers are aware of the impact of these delays and will work as quickly as possible to process Form I-765 applications for OPT. 

What You Can Do

If you have already filed your application and are waiting for your receipt notice, we appreciate your patience. Currently, we recommend that you wait eight weeks before contacting us to inquire about your case status. We are working as quickly as possible to complete the intake of all filings. As a reminder, you can create a free USCIS online account, check the status of your case, and our current processing times from your mobile device, anywhere, anytime using our case status online tool.

USCIS will continue to monitor this situation and will announce any additional changes on our website, www.uscis.gov.

For more information on USCIS and our programs, please visit uscis.gov or follow us on Twitter (@uscis), YouTube (/uscis), Facebook (/uscis) and Instagram (@USCIS).

Kind regards,
Public Engagement Division
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

January 26, 2021.

A January 26, 2021 letter sent to DHS by the American Council on Education (ACE) and co-signed by NAFSA and numerous other educational associations asks USCIS to:

  1. Grant conditional approval for I-765 OPT applications that have been delayed due to the lockbox situation, so students and graduates do not miss their start date for employment or risk falling out of status; 
  2. Grant conditional extension for STEM OPT applicants to extend their existing work authorization if their applications have been delayed and clarify that employers can use a receipt or other confirmation of timely filing for I-9 purposes, so STEM OPT students who have not yet received a receipt notice can continue working for 180 days beyond the expiration of their standard OPT as their application is being processed; 
  3. Do not penalize OPT applicants if they submitted applications to the wrong address because the lockbox address suddenly changed; 
  4. Coordinate with DHS' Student and Exchange Visitor Program to ensure that Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) records and pending STEM OPT requests are not improperly cancelled or terminated, and to quickly and efficiently apply relevant data fixes to SEVIS records if needed; 
  5. If an OPT or STEM OPT application is rejected, but because of receipt notice and processing delays the student is beyond regulatory filing timeframes by the time the student is made aware of the rejection, accept a refiled application that cures the deficiency, despite being outside the regulatory filing windows; and 
  6. Given the ongoing delays for OPT processing, allow applicants to submit I-765 applications up to 180 days (rather than 90 days) before the I-20 program end date (standard post-completion OPT applicants) or the expiration date of the student's current OPT employment authorization (STEM OPT extension applicants), given that processing time is closer to five months rather than a standard 90 days.

January 12, 2021.

A January 12, 2021 alert on the CIS Ombudsman Office Case Assistance page provided the following update and instructions:

"Alert: USCIS Receipt Notice Delays

The CIS Ombudsman is issuing this alert to notify individuals and employers of USCIS delays in issuing receipt notices from the agency's Lockbox intake facilities and the actions the CIS Ombudsman is taking to address these delays.

Based on requests for case assistance submitted to our office, USCIS is taking as long as 8 to 9 weeks to issue receipt notices for some applications and petitions.

In response to our attempts to work with USCIS to secure receipt notices, the agency has responded that it is unable to expedite their issuance. We will continue to try to assist individuals who have not received a Notice of Action (Form I-797C) 90 days after their application/petition was received at USCIS. Applicants who have not received a receipt notice within 60 days of filing should first contact USCIS. If USCIS does not respond to your inquiry within 30 days, you may submit a request for case assistance to the CIS Ombudsman.

The CIS Ombudsman is working with USCIS to find solutions to mitigate the harm to applicants impacted by the delays in issuing receipt notices.

For more information, please read USCIS' announcement."

January 8, 2021. A January 8, 2021 USCIS Lockbox Updates news alert posted by USCIS further noted:

"As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, an increase in filings, current postal service volume and other external factors, you may experience a delay of four to six weeks in receiving your receipt notice after properly filing an application or petition with a USCIS lockbox. These delays will not affect the receipt date which is determined pursuant to 8 C.F.R. 103.2(a)(7). Delays may vary among form types and lockbox locations. In some cases, you may experience significant delays if you filed a non-family based Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, or Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, based on eligibility categories described in 8 C.F.R. 274a.12(c)(3), relating to F-1 students."

December 15, 2020. A December 15, 2020 Stakeholder Message from the USCIS Public Engagement Division confirmed the many reports of significant delays in processing of receipt notices for applications for benefits such as OPT that are filed at USCIS lockboxes:

"The USCIS lockbox facilities have received a significant increase in filings in recent weeks. This increase, along with facility capacity restrictions necessary to protect the health and safety of the lockbox workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, is causing significant delays for processing receipt notices. We continue to work to minimize delays. Once we process your submission, we will review your package."